My Dad used to joke that he gave up chocolate marshmallow milkshakes for Lent. The punch line is that he never drank chocolate marshmallow milkshakes, so it wasn't a terribly difficult burden.
"Dad" humor. I used to be a victim, now I'm an offender.
The story came to mind today when I read Carol Janus' blog from the Center for a New American Dream, "Why give up chocolate for Lent when you can give up plastic?"
Janus, the volunteer chairperson for the Washington National Cathedral's environment committee, wrote about how she started a "give up plastic for Lent" project at the church last year.
"It seems I get two reactions to the idea," she wrote. "It's either great enthusiasm or I'm asked 'What? Give up plastic? That's impossible!' Plastic use has become such an integral part of our lives, and it does seem impossible to give it up."
My reaction doesn't quite fall into either one of those categories.
On one hand, part of me takes a deep breath and thinks that it's not impossible to give up plastic — after all, plastic has only really been around for about a century.
But truly giving up plastics would mean making a Thoreau-inspired retreat to an era without computers, advanced medical care, and any sort of transportation more advanced than a horse.
Or a bicycle, I guess. But you'd have to be careful to ditch the reflectors, which doesn't seem like a good idea.
On the other hand, I see some merit to Janus' idea. But I think it needs some more thought.
Janus writes that the problem is single-use plastic. I don't think that's quite right. There are plenty of appropriate applications for single-use plastics.
Hospitals are trying to combat serious problems with the spread of infectious diseases by using single-use devices in medical procedures. If I'm in the hospital, I don't really care about giving up the "luxury" of plastic — I don't want MRSA.
I think it's ridiculous that some retailers automatically hand customers a plastic bag no matter what they buy. That's wasteful. But at the same time, I reuse every single bag that I get ... because, well, I have dogs. When I don't get enough "free" bags, I have to buy them. That doesn't appeal to my thrifty nature.
The same applies to the other major product that's always cited by the "give up plastics" proponents: bottled water. I almost never buy bottled water, because why should I? I have bottles. Drinking fountains are a thing. Bottled water is expensive. But there's a time and a place that's appropriate for bottled water (for example, Flint, Mich., for the foreseeable future).
Can we, as a society, use less single-use stuff? Yes. And the world will be a better place if we properly disposed of or recycled the products that we used.
But the bottom line for me is that plastics aren't evil, and we shouldn't treat them like they're something that we'd all be better off without.
Still, chocolate — and chocolate marshmallow milkshakes — have managed to survive despite countless people giving them up for Lent for the past 1,000+ years.
Maybe that's an idea for the deep thinkers working on plastics' persistent image problem. Stop trying to defend plastics with science. Make them seem like a sinful indulgence instead.